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Browns very first NFL game: The complete story - Part 2

The established league had gone out of their way to display that the four-time AAFC champion Browns were only bush league

QB Otto Graham (left), Paul Brown

The Cleveland Browns merged into the National Football League (NFL) in 1950 as past members of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), an NFL rival league, which competed from 1946-1949.

The AAFC lasted four years, and the Browns had won every year’s championship.

Cleveland was now set to compete in the NFL beginning with the 1950 season.


The Browns early history in the AAFC was chronicled in Part 1 plus the NFL’s desire to make the transition into the NFL as difficult as they could.

At the time, the NFL powerhouse clubs were the New York Football Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins. Along with the Browns, also merged into the fold of the NFL was the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts. The Bears were the only really good western team while the Giants, Eagles and Redskins resided in the eastern regions. The NFL placed the more-western Browns into the eastern conference and the more-eastern Colts into the western division. This meant Cleveland would be pitted against harder competition more during the season.

The Eagles had won the NFL title two seasons in a row. So, for the Browns first-ever NFL contest, the schedule makers made certain that Cleveland would play at Philadelphia in Week 1.

The overall plan was to discredit the Browns as this “powerhouse” team and embarrass head coach Paul Brown. Right away. Intentionally.

The stage is set

This was billed as the game of the century. The NFL schedule-makers did everything they could to discredit the Cleveland Browns as a “powerhouse.” Although the Browns’ Cleveland Municipal Stadium held 81,000 for football and many Cleveland games exceeded that amount, the game was scheduled for Philadelphia Municipal Stadium which held 71,000.

The Eagles traditionally were annually one of the NFL doormat teams, but this changed when they hired Greasy Neale as their head coach. He had been successful in the college ranks and when hired by Philadelphia installed the “T” formation made famous by the Chicago Bears.

By 1946, the Eagles came in second place in the Eastern Division. From 1947-1949, Philadelphia won it and played in three straight NFL Championship Games. In 1947, they were beaten by the Chicago Cardinals 28-21. The following season, they defeated the Cards 7-0 in a blizzard. For 1949, they won their second straight title by besting the Rams 14-0 after going 11-1-0 during the regular season.

The Eagles weren’t just good, they were scary good. They were a class act. Three title games in a row showed their dominance in the NFL. Two titles - no, make that two shutout title games in a row. Seven total losses in three seasons.

Running back Steve Van Buren had won the league rushing title three years in a row. Linebacker Chuck Bednarik cemented their defense. Pete Pihos was an All-Pro receiver. The offense was ranked Number 1 in the league.

The game was scheduled for the last game of the weekend on September 16, a Sunday night. This game would mark the first regular season game the Browns would play in an orange helmet. All four years in the AAFC Cleveland donned white helmets. But an NFL rule prohibited teams from playing in white or light-colored helmets, jerseys and pants because they played with a white football.

For the Browns, they had played four years as a professional football team, but now, they were set to embark on their very first NFL contest.

Cleveland battles the NFL Champs

The Philadelphia “Whizz Kid” Phillies were in a heated pennant race, but this game got the top headline. One thing was certain: it would become the highest promoted and anticipated one-game football game for a non-title ever played.

Paul Brown was heavily scrutinized. Coach Neale stated they were nothing more than a basketball team “because all he does is put the ball in the air.” This was a time period that the forward pass was regarded as a tool to set up the running game and used only in emergency situations or playing catch up. Browns’ players in NFL media guides were identified as not having any professional football experience.

The “Titans of Pro Football” Eagles were about to unleash their dominance on the minor league Browns. The Eagles were invincible – and they knew it. Before this game, Philadelphia didn’t even scout the Browns because they were basically a squad operated by a high school coach.

No one gave the Browns a chance to win even though it was basically pro football’s very first Super Bowl – champions of two leagues going head-to-head.

Philadelphia wore their solid green night helmets with green jerseys with silver pants. Cleveland wore their night game solid orange helmets, brown jerseys and light silver pants – the only year they wore silver pants.

The Eagles’ Van Buren was sidelined with surgically repaired big toe. Few thought this would make any difference because Bosh Pritchard was a capable backup.

Philadelphia was able to drive the field early to which Cliff Patton converted a 15-yard field goal and an early 3-0 lead.

WR Mac Speedie against the Eagles

Right off, the Browns showed the stiff Philly defense what their day would be like and found receivers completely open all day for the unprepared Eagles. The Browns had the height advantage as Dub Jones was 6’-4”, Mac Speedie 6’-3” and Dante Lavelli was 6’-0”.

Lanky receiver Jones was all alone on the Browns first score. Cleveland QB Otto Graham had hit Jones with several short passes. This made the Eagles’ top pass defender, Russ Craft, to begin to cheat up closer to Jones coming off the line. Once Craft had almost eliminated any clearance between the two, Jones simply broke downfield. As Graham released his pass just moments from being nailed, Jones had a 10-yard advantage and coasted to a 59-yard touchdown and a 7-0 first quarter lead.

Early in the second quarter, Graham hit WR Lavelli on a 26-yard touchdown pass to up Cleveland’s lead to 14-3 at halftime.

During the practice week and film study prior to the game, Coach Brown had noticed several interesting aspects about the Eagles’ exceptional defensive line. For one, the big defensive linemen were the only option to stop the running game because Neale placed two linebackers wide to cover receivers. The other item of notice was the defensive lineman splits. It seems these players were taking their splits according to their offensive line counterparts.

As the game continued into the second quarter, Coach Brown instructed his offensive linemen to gradually make their splits a bit wider on every play.

So, for the second half, the pass had set up the run. Fullback Marion Motley had barely touched the ball in the first two quarters, but now was going to become the feature. The offensive linemen had their splits almost a full body width apart, and Philadelphia’s front had responded by going wider and wider. Motley was like a freight train and hitting the second level with ease.

This eventually caused the two outside backers to abandon their coverage responsibilities to help out with the run game. When that happened, Jones was sent on wide end runs after inside fakes to Motley. One run gained 57-yards.

The wide end runs, the inside running game plus the up-the-middle fakes to Motley reverted Graham back to the passing game where he sliced the Eagles’ defensive backfield. Down on the Eagles’ 13-yard line, Graham dropped back to throw and shook off a defender. He then tossed to Mac Speedie who leaped for the ball on the three-yard line. He then shook off a tackle by Philadelphia safety Neill Armstrong and fell into the end zone to make it 21-3 going into the final stanza.

QB Otto Graham scores from the one-yard line against the Eagles

The Browns drove the field early in the fourth quarter with short crisp passes to Jones and Speedie with an occasional completion to RB Rex Bumgardner. Graham had great touch on knew when to give adequate lead space for his receivers. He later scored on a one-yard plunge as the long time-killing drive. Early in the fourth quarter, it was Cleveland 28, Philadelphia 3.

Eagles’ starting QB Tommy Thompson was benched in the hopes that his backup Bill Mackrides could spark the offense in the fourth quarter. Mackrides went 3-8 for 45 yards and found Pihos on a 17-yard strike. The Browns countered with a fake toss to Motley and then an inside handoff to Bumgardner who scored from the two.

When the final gun sounded, Cleveland had won 35-10. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “The Browns were considered inferior by a good many cocky partisans of the NFL, but whipped the pants off that league’s best.”

Otto Graham Kissing Helmet
QB Otto Graham

For the game, Graham was 21 for 38 passing attempts for 346 yards with three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown along with two interceptions. Motley had 11 rushes for 48-yards and two pass receptions for 26 yards. Speedie had 109-yards while Jones totaled 98-yards and Lavelli had 76-yards.

Philadelphia rushed 44 times for 148-yards yet passed for just 118-yards. There were nine turnovers for the game and 15 penalties, a dozen on Cleveland.

What was supposed to be a balanced game of league champions ended up a slaughter. The 71,000 paying home crowd was the biggest gate for the Eagles in their history and remains as such to this day.

Playing in their first-ever NFL game, the Browns out-scouted, out-coached, out-ran, out-blocked, out-passed and out-and-out humiliated the Eagles from just past the national anthem until just after the last shower trickle was turned off.

On a list of the 10 Greatest NFL Upsets by NFL Films, they rated this game Number 4. After the game, NFL commissioner Bert Bell was quoted as saying, “That is the best football team I have ever seen.”

Not bad for a minor league football-turned-basketball team with a high school coach.